Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers is the story of Ismae, a young girl who is more than she seems. For she is no mere girl- she is a handmaiden of Death. Born into a peasant family and sold by her father to an abusive husband, her future looks bleak. Things change however when she is spirited away to a convent- but this is no ordinary convent. For the nuns here serve Death as well.
Ismae is to be an assassin. Plucked away from her old life of misery she is trained in combat, the art of poison, the ways of love. The convent serves
but its ways are mysterious and shrouded in the pagan traditions of old. While the country is nominally Christian, the old ways are still followed by many and the old saints still hold sway. It is one of these old saints that gives the convent its authority. Brittany
The year is 1485, the place
. The presumptive duchess is Anne, a twelve year old girl who has been betrothed to many of the princes of Brittany Europe and is beset on all sides by enemies. The French in particular are hungry to add the duchy of to their holdings, and due to a recent treaty they claim the right to approve any marriage she makes. Anne and her advisors are desperate to find a way to keep Brittany independent- but there is a spy at court reporting to the French regent, and the situation is dire. Brittany
Anne’s half brother Duval is her greatest ally and closest confidante, and she appears to trust him implicitly. When Ismae and Duval cross paths, the sparks fly. Ismae is on her first mission, to eliminate a traitor and she runs into Duval in the process. They appear to be working at cross purposes. Their paths cross a second time, and Duval comes to the convent to find out why the nuns are eliminating people he is trying to make contact with. The convent is loyal to Anne but they have their doubts about Duval. When it is decided that Ismae must accompany Duval to the royal court, to assess the situation and discover the truth of Duval’s loyalties, Ismae is not pleased…
I liked this book a lot. It has action, intrigue, lots of plotting and great characterization. I do think Duval was portrayed at times as almost TOO honorable, in a time and place such as this could someone like Duval have existed? One hopes so. Ismae is skeptical as well, and as her and Duval grow closer by necessity, she becomes torn between devotion to Duval (and Anne) and her duty to the convent.
The romance is a slow burn which I appreciated, Ismae and Duval come from such different backgrounds and their missions are so different that it makes sense. They do not trust each other at first, and even when they grow closer together there are twists and turns that threaten to tear them apart. Ismae is formidable and more than capable of holding her own, as she demonstrates on more than one occasion, so her and Duval are equals and I found this refreshing.
This book is fairly long and could have used a little tighter editing perhaps, but the pace is brisk and it never flags. I found the pages turned quickly and I was engrossed by the story. If I have a complaint, it’s the balancing act of the story itself. I was expecting historical fiction with a few mystical elements thrown in, and I was surprised somewhat by the fantasy elements. It was kind of a weird mix of historical fiction and fantasy for me. I love fantasies but when I read historical fiction set in real places it is jarring and takes me out of the story a bit if magical elements start popping in.
There are also some realism issues- Ismae for example pretty much has the run of the palace and that didn’t seem particularly realistic given her short time at court. In spite of these quibbles, I found the story to be fun and engaging and the characters interesting. Definetly recommended.
“How does the convent decide whom to kill?” he presses.
I study his face closely, but I cannot tell if he is questioning the convent or just me. “Surely that is the convent’s business, milord, not yours”.
“If I will be sponsoring you at court, I will not be kept in the dark, only to find myself cleaning up bodies and making explanations.”